In this conversation with RevDem assistant editor Lorena Drakula, Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser sheds light on the historical context, ideological characteristics, and the consequential impact of the recent far-right success in Latin America, encompassing prominent figures from José Antonio Kast and Jair Bolsonaro to Nayib Bukele and Javier Milei.
Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser is a professor at the Institute of Political Science at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, an associate researcher at the Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies, and the Director of the Laboratory for the Study of the Far Right.
Lorena Drakula: In recent years, the surge of far-right movements and ideologies across Latin America has sparked intense debates and raised critical questions about the social, political, and economic fabric of these nations. However, a wide amount of the scholarship on the far right still focuses on the European or US-specific contexts. Could we specify who or what we talk about when discussing the far right in the Latin American context? Are there any similar ideological components to the far-right political programs in Latin America and Europe, and if so, which elements stand out?
Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser: The literature on the far right has indeed focused mainly on Western Europe because of the rise of the Front National and the Austrian Freedom Party. It then started getting attention in Eastern Europe, particularly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the expansion of democratic politics in Eastern Europe, but also because of the rise of different far right actors within the East European context.
I came to Chile almost 10 years ago, and I remember that when I arrived here and told my colleagues that I was doing research the far right, or the populist radical right, practically everybody told me that well, this is happening very, very far from Latin America and it is not related to us. I was thinking that this may be a question of time. When we saw the rise of Donald Trump, I think it was then, for the first time, that people in Latin America started to think maybe this is something that might happen here as well. Then we had Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. After that, I started seeing more research on the far right in Latin America, precisely because of the rise of Bolsonaro, but also because of the emergence of many other populist radical right actors or far right forces within the Latin American context.
The question about the concepts that we use is a bit tricky and that is precisely because the research agenda started in Western and Eastern Europe. It is important to ask ourselves to what extent can we use the same kind of concepts to understand the reality of other regions. Today we are going to talk about Latin America, but I think the same questions remain relevant if we think about, for example, Southeast Asia, Australia, or other places.
Nevertheless, if we try to adapt the same sort of conceptualization in the Latin American context that we know from Europe, I think it works relatively well, with certain caveats. The first point is that when we are talking about the far right, the main distinction is between the far right and the mainstream right, and the distinction is based mainly on two criteria. Firstly, we assume that right-wing actors are going to politicize right-wing ideas, but the mainstream right is going to do it in a relatively moderate way, whereas the far right is going to do it in a very radical way. In this sense, the first attribute has to do with how these right-wing ideas are going to be politicized, and how radical they are going to be.
The second dimension is even more relevant than this, and it has to do with the relationship with the democratic regime. Mainstream right actors are fine with democracy and particularly with liberal democracy, whereas far right actors are against the democratic regime, or more specifically its liberal component, as is the case with the populist radical right. If we take these two main criteria and we try to adapt them to the Latin American context, I would say that they travel relatively well. When we think about Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, these are far right politicians in the sense that they propose right-wing ideas in a very radical way, and the second component, which has to do with a very difficult relationship with the liberal democratic system, is also very present.
The last point that I want to emphasize here also has to do with the ideological components. If we think about the far right in Europe, we think about immigration. That is a key issue. But if you think about the far right in Latin America, immigration is not really a problem. To a certain extent, this is because there are not too many people coming to Latin America. Although, if we have time, we can talk about Chile, my own country, in which we have a relatively big influx of immigrants, and the far right in the Chilean case is politicizing that dimension as well. But in the rest of Latin America, this is not the issue.
The question then is which issues far right politicians are politicizing within the Latin American context. We did a workshop here in Santiago de Chile a couple of months ago in which we invited scholars from different countries and tried to identify “the minimal common denominator”. We found two issues that all these actors are politicizing which, to a certain extent, make them different from mainstream right politicians within the Latin American context.
From an ideological point of view, the key issues being politicized are moral conservatism, taking very harsh stances on issues related, for example, to gay rights and abortion, and a mano dura, having iron fist policies against crime.
Based on the definitions I am using here and also how ideas are being politicized in Latin America, I have found Lenka Bustikova’s book on the far right in Eastern Europe, Extreme Reactions. Radical Right Mobilizations in Eastern Europe (2019), fascinating. The argument she makes, although she applies it to Eastern Europe, but I think it travels relatively well to Latin America and probably beyond, is that the key issue of the far right is that they are involved in the politicization against those minorities that are getting more rights across time. If you think about the European context, this is related to immigrants. There have always been immigrants in Europe, but in the last decades, society started to become more aware of restrictions toward immigrants and started to adapt to immigrants. And because of that, you have the politicization of these policies, and this is what the radical right or the far right is picking up on.
In the Latin American context, the minorities that have gotten more rights in the last decades are mainly women and, to a certain extent, the gay population. And because we see the adaptation of the state towards those minorities, now we have the backlash in the sense that these actors at the elite level, namely far right politicians, are politicizing those issues.
The far right is not about specific issues. It is not about immigration or sexual politics. The far right is connected to the politicization against minorities that are getting rights and more weight over time, which varies across different regional contexts.”
This is very interesting, but I also find it remarkable how you did not mention populism or nativism, the two key characteristics through which you otherwise define the populist radical right.
Yes, the reason why I am doing that is because I think that the populist radical right is a subtype of the far right. It is the subtype that is most relevant across the Western European context and, to a certain extent, also across the Eastern European context. But if we think about the Latin American context, the actors that really fit the definition of the populist radical right are a few, whereas if we are talking about the far right, which is broader, and includes the populist radical right, then you will see a lot of far right politicians within the Latin American context.
To give you an example: much of the literature makes a distinction between the populist radical right and the extreme right. The populist radical right is less radical than the extreme right because it attacks only the liberal component of democracy, whereas the extreme right attacks democracy per se. In the Latin American context, Bolsonaro is a good example to see whether the definition is suitable and he indeed really fits that of the populist radical right. He is articulating populist tropes, he is authoritarian, and to a certain extent he is a nativist too, although nativism is not aimed towards immigrants, but much more towards indigenous communities and the Afro-American population in Brazil.
But the more Bolsonaro was nearing the end of his term as president, the more authoritarian he became, and then the distinction between the populist radical right and the extreme right got very complicated. As you probably know, after the end of his government there was an attack against institutions of democracy in Brasilia, which to a certain extent was orchestrated by him. This was not against liberal democracy, this was against democracy per se. This is why I think that, at least for the Latin American context, but I suppose for the rest of the world as well, we should talk about the far right and then identify some actors that might fit the definition of the populist radical right, but the latter are going to be relatively few.
But even with this wider definition of the far right, you argue that it is a relatively recent phenomenon in Latin America. It is always hard to make any kind of generalization, but are there any common underlying socio-economic conditions, cultural shifts, or political influences that have converged to propel the popularity of far right ideologies and actors in the region?
As you were already saying, it is difficult to identify a sort of general theory, but there are a couple of arguments that are important to consider here. I would say there are three main arguments about why the far right is gaining traction across Latin America.
The first one is what I will call the ‘punishment of incumbents’. If you think about Latin America, for a long period, particularly since the end of the 1990s, we had a lot of left-wing politicians coming into power: Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, in my own country, Chile we also had a socialist government, in Brazil it was the same… These were different kinds of left-wing actors – some of them were more radical, the others were more moderate. However, since the beginning of the 2000s we have had the so-called pink tide or left-wing wave across Latin America. But this pink tide came to an end, to a certain extent because of corruption scandals and also because of questions of political economy. The commodities boom was over and that made it quite difficult for left-wing governments to continue in power.
Many left-wing governments were defeated across the region. The voters wanted to punish them because they were not able to deliver or because they were involved in corruption scandals, opening the electoral opportunity structure for the rise of new actors who were going to be against the left.
So, the first point here is sort of circumstantial – the far right gaining traction has to do with the punishment of the incumbents. The second aspect is somewhat broader and travels to the European context as well: it is the crisis of the mainstream right.
In many Latin American countries, we see that mainstream right actors are not able anymore to develop political programs that are attractive to large segments of the population. When this happens, there is a bigger chance that far right politicians will try to push their agenda to steal the voters of the mainstream right.
Chile is a good example of that. We have had a relatively successful mainstream right. They were able to conquer executive office and, to do that, they became more moderate over time. The mainstream right in Chile at the beginning of the 1990s was very conservative both on the economic and the socio-cultural dimension, but they started to moderate themselves, and precisely because of this process, they were able to get into office. But as soon as they got into office, they faced the usual problem: sometimes you are not able to deliver. At the same time, because of their moderation process, some segments of the electorate started to feel a bit awkward about the mainstream right, which also opened a space for the far right.
The third argument, which I think is not only relevant in Latin America, has to do with diffusion processes.
If you are a politician in Latin America nowadays, and if you turn on the TV, you will hear about Narendra Modi in India, you will hear about Donald Trump in the United States, you will hear about Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and it may look to them like these guys are doing something that is working relatively well in those countries. Many far right politicians within the Latin American context are looking at what is happening beyond Latin America, and they are trying to emulate some of those policies.
At the same time, we know that this diffusion process does not only consist of a sort of emulation. There is also diffusion in the sense that some of the actors in the Northern Hemisphere are actively trying to diffuse their ideas to the Southern Hemisphere. They organize meetings, they get together VOX in Spain, for example, the populist radical right party there, has been very active in trying to develop a network between far right politicians in Spain and Europe with Latin American actors. Through these sorts of processes, you see a diffusion.
I mentioned three ideas – diffusion processes, the crisis of the mainstream right, and the punishment of incumbents – that may help us understand why the far right is gaining traction across Latin America. But I would like to close with a reflection about an argument that you can hear sometimes, particularly in the media, which has no basis in empirical fact: the argument concerns a backlash, i.e., that voters in Latin America are getting more conservative. If you look at public opinion data across Latin America, and this applies to many other places around the world, also to Western Europe, we do not have empirical evidence that voters are getting more conservative. It is not the case that Latin American voters are more strongly disposed against abortion or sexual politics. If anything, the opposite is happening with many voters getting more liberal over time. Again, the same has been happening in many other places too. This opens a puzzle: how come that if voters are not getting more conservative, far right politicians are gaining traction?
This has to do with the capability of these far right politicians to politicize certain issues that are, I would say, relevant to niche sections of society. If you are getting very harsh, for example, on sexual politics, it might be that you mobilize evangelical communities, but this is not necessarily a huge chunk of the population.
At the same time, they are articulating other ideological components, for example, the demand for iron fist politics on crime – and a lot of people in Latin America are worried about crime – or issues of corruption. Through that, they can sell an ideological package that is interesting for different chunks of the population.
Again, it is not the case that the majority per se is leaning more towards the far right. This is only a small section, but the far right is smart enough to politicize other issues as well, and through that, they reach the sort of electorate they can mobilize.
From this perspective, a question would be why the left has not been able to mobilize on the same issues, for example, crime and corruption.
For the left, the issue of crime is problematic because if you are a progressive actor you want to stick to the rule of law; you will say “okay, we must deal with crime, but we have to do it within the boundaries of the rule of law.” The problem is that the far right has a comparative advantage because it has an ambivalent relationship with liberal democracy. They will say something along the lines of “we do not care about human rights, we just have to kill those guys.” It is a message that is, of course, awful, but a big chunk of the population is going to say “That is fine, we just want to live in a society in which crime is not a problem, and if the price of that is that we have to deny certain human rights to certain sections of the population, we are fine with that.” That is the story of Bukele in El Salvador, and he is extremely popular, although the policies that he is implementing are very, very much against the rule of law.
To be honest, the left has not been able to develop a policy program that, on the one hand, sticks to the rule of law, and on the other, is dealing with crime effectively. The main reason for that is that dealing with crime is tough. It is not going to be solved from one day to another; you must develop a long-term policy that has to do with many different dimensions. So this is an issue that is very difficult to politicize for the left.
We have had some far right actors come to power in Latin America in the past ten years. Is there some kind of noteworthy ideological transformation happening with far right parties or actors once they are in office?
Regarding far right actors in Latin America in office, the two clearest examples are Bolsonaro in Brazil, who was able to govern for four years, and Bukele, who is the current president of El Salvador. There are going to be elections in El Salvador in February 2024 and according to all polls, Bukele is going to be reelected. If you look at these two cases, they are to a certain extent different in terms of their starting points.
If you look at Bolsonaro, he has always been a far right backbencher. He has always been part of the political system with small political parties, and he has always been politicizing a clear far right ideology in terms of issues related to crime, conservative positions on sexual politics, and many other dimensions. Bukele is fascinating because he started much more as a leftist progressive. He started to fight against the two-party system in El Salvador, and he was able to get elected with sort of an outsider ticket. If you look at his program at the start, he was relatively progressive on certain dimensions, but during his tenure, he started to get very conservative, particularly on the issue of abortion. In the beginning, he was relatively pro-abortion, now he is completely against it. The same with gay rights. This links back to the issue of ideological components.
If you think more broadly across Latin America, the ideological starting points of these leaders might differ, but at the end of the day, they do form a sort of family because they share positions on specific issues, mainly moral conservatism and iron first policies.
Precisely because of that, once such leaders come into power, the issues that they want to push are related to these two main dimensions. Depending on the context, they might try to politicize other ones, but they are particularly harsh on crime, and because of that, they are going to push for certain reforms that are problematic for the rule of law.
The case of El Salvador is the most intimidating one. Different reports from Human Rights Watch, for example, show that behind the successful policies of Bukele, many people got incarcerated who should not have been, that the situation in prisons is very harsh, and there are more issues like that. Overall, if you are looking for one commonality, and this is something that you already see in other parts of the world as well, that would be democratic backsliding as a slow-motion process.
It is not that once these leaders come into power, they will destroy the system from one day to the next, but they will start tweaking the system slowly so that the liberal component of democracy diminishes.
In Brazil, because Bolsonaro was in government only for four years, the situation was still under control. But I fear that if Bukele gets re-elected, and the possibility of that is very high, the process of democratic backsliding will continue, and it might result in something similar to the competitive authoritarian regimes in other places.
Arguably, a lesson from Europe is that the far right forces often come to power through forming alliances with the conservatives. Have far right actors in Latin America been successful in collaborating with mainstream conservative parties? And, if so, how have these collaborations contributed to their integration into the political landscape?
That is an interesting question, but it is important to consider here the main difference between Europe and Latin America, which has to do with how governments work. We have a presidential system here, and this means that if you have a very popular candidate, that candidate might be able to win the election, but will not necessarily control the parliament. This is why you very often have a situation in Latin America where you might have a strong president who nevertheless is not able to govern because he or she does not have a majority in Congress.
This was to a certain extent the case with Bolsonaro. He was personally very popular, and he was able to expand his base of support at the Congress level, but at the same time, he did not have a majority. On top of that, Brazil is a federal country, it has many layers. To a certain extent, this saved Brazilian democracy during the Bolsonaro government: there were so many different actors involved, which diminished the capacity of Bolsonaro to push his agenda. Add to that that Bolsonaro was – and this happens with many far right leaders across Latin America – very bad at forming coalitions. To a certain extent, this is because far right actors tend to be very authoritarian leaders who want to stick to their program and do not want to bargain.
In the case of Bukele, he was able to get elected and to get a majority in Congress. This is why the process of democratic backsliding in El Salvador is moving faster now than what happened in the case of Brazil. And this is also why I am quite worried about the potential re-election of Bukele: he has enough votes to continue pushing his agenda.
But overall, I think that far right politicians are not really willing to build coalitions in Latin American countries. They just want to govern on their own and with the people who are behind them. Normally, they try to attack the mainstream right rather than build support with them. If they have a strong president, they will try to stick to that agenda and attack all those who are against the leader. This has to do with personalism which, I think, matters a bit more in Latin America than in Europe.
To my mind, this makes complete sense for the far right actors in office. But how about far right parties or actors who are in opposition?
The problem is similar here: many of the far right forces across Latin America are based on strong leaders. It is a key question whether these strong leaders are going to be able to build strong political organizations or strong political parties. In Latin America, political parties tend to be relatively weak, and because of that it is difficult to imagine that you will see strong far right organizations behind them.
Bolsonaro was not able to build a strong political party. Nevertheless, in Brazil, people at the academic level speak about Bolsonarismo. That is the main heritage that he left. Bolsonaro will probably not even be able to run in elections until 2030 – he has been banned because of his involvement in undemocratic politics – but I bet that what we call Bolsonarismo will continue to exist.
Bolsonarismo, again, is a sort of loose ideology that had been spread across society, but as we were discussing before, you do not have an organization there. In the Latin American context, organizations might not be key. The most important heritage of those leaders is that they can pull different ideas into a sort of ideological mix that other political actors can continue to politicize without necessarily having a strong organization.
As you mentioned, the far right exhibits the key ideological feature of authoritarianism. To what extent do the roots of far right actors in Latin America extend to the military dictatorships of the previous century? And how does this historical context of authoritarianism illuminate or complicate the relationship between the far right and democracy in the region?
That is an interesting question that I think probably travels beyond Latin America. When we talk about the far right across the globe, we need to think about how authoritarian tropes might be mobilized and politicized depending on the history of different regions. When you think about authoritarianism in the West European or East European context, it has a lot to do with fascism. That is the whole debate. In Eastern Europe, to a certain extent, authoritarianism also has to do with the communist past and its legacy.
If you use the concept of authoritarianism in the Latin American context, this has to do mainly with the dictatorships that we had in the 1960s and the 1970s – Pinochet in Chile would be an example, or the dictatorships in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. In many of those cases, the far right today is selling a sort of nostalgia for the authoritarian past.
Bolsonaro, for example, comes from the military and he is politicizing that dimension very often, talking about a golden past during authoritarian rule. He is very outspoken about that. In the case of Chile, the far right politician José Antonio Kast is a bit smoother. He also serves this sort of nostalgia. Not because he says we need to violate human rights, he says that was awful, but because of the issue of crime. Remember that across Latin America, crime is one of the most salient issues. It is at the top of the agenda across the societies of Latin America whereas in Europe, the key issue in terms of saliency is immigration. In Chile, José Antonio Kast is saying something along the lines of “Well, during the dictatorship, crime was not an issue.” Of course, it was not, because you had authoritarian regimes controlling the streets and violating human rights. What many of these far right politicians are selling is that sort of nostalgia about a golden period in which law and order were respected.
Another interesting component I take from the classic book of Cas Mudde on the populist radical right. How he is thinking about authoritarianism is related to Theodor Adorno’s ideas and his argument that the authoritarian mentality has to do with having very clear hierarchies within society. This is also very clear in the Latin American context because all these far right politicians are saying that we had this period in the past in which there was a clear authority, mainly male, and we are not so fine with all these policies of accommodation toward gender because of which nowadays we do not know the roles we should have within society. This is also how this sort of nostalgia is being politicized in Latin America.
We recently had the elections in Argentina and Javier Milei did not achieve the huge success that might have been expected after the August primaries. While we are still waiting for the final result of the runoff, do you think that the rise of the far right, in the case of Argentina and other countries, again to try and generalize, is more the result of a momentary crisis within democratic systems, or is it a more enduring feature of democracy?
It is not so easy to generalize from one case study, but I think the Argentinian case is a good one because Javier Milei is a guy who two years ago was not known at all and was now able to get 30 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election. We will see what happens in the ballotage but there is a fair chance that he might even win. But for someone who was not a political factor two years ago and was able to gather the second majority, it is quite a feat.
How can we explain that? To a certain extent, the three arguments that we were talking about before apply very well to this case. First, the rise of Milei has to do with the punishment of the incumbents and the critical situation in Argentina. You had the center left Peronist government, which really mismanaged the economy, inflation is at 140 percent, and poverty levels are above 40 percent. A lot of people are angry, and Milei is criticizing the incumbent very, very harshly with his clear populist rhetoric. He is talking about ‘La Casta’ the whole time, which is like saying ‘the elite’, under which he is bringing together mainstream right and the Peronist party to mobilize all those who are angry at the current government.
At the same time, you have a crisis of the mainstream right because the government before the Peronist was mainstream right, headed by Mauricio Macri. His main message was that he would be able to deliver in economic terms, but he was not able to control inflation either and he was not able to assure economic growth. Because of that, many people are now saying: “We had the mainstream right in government, but they did not deliver. Now we have the left in government, but they did not deliver either. So, we need to try something different.”
The third aspect is diffusion. When you see the sort of jargon that Milei is developing, it is very much related to the ideas that are popping up in different places around the world, including Latin America. It is important to realize that these politicians get together. For example, Bolsonaro’s son and José Antonio Kast went to Buenos Aires to meet with Milei and to push his agenda. They try to understand which issues are being politicized there and try to develop a sort of global idea.
Some of these things are specific to Latin America. For example, you do not necessarily see a huge inflation crisis in other parts of the world. But, at the same time,
this is a global trend, happening in many places of the world, and what you see are local adaptations of the far right script.
In the case of Latin America, Milei is politicizing the issue of inflation, something that you do not see necessarily in other places, but he is also bringing in different ideas and developing an ideological mix that works relatively well in the Latin American context.
I think we need to try to push the agenda beyond Europe. Most of the studies that we have on the far right are based on the West and East European as well as US contexts. We have a lot of knowledge based on that region, but we would need to expand the agenda to other places of the world and do something truly comparative. Through that, I think we will get a better understanding of the issues the far right is politicizing and to what extent they are attacking the democratic system in different places, possibly through different mechanisms, but probably with the same outcome – a process of democratic backsliding.
In collaboration with Lucie Hunter